Hand washing is always important, but especially now. Wash your hands for 20 seconds, regularly. Note that soap works ideally in combination with scrubbing and heat, but cold water works far better than nothing. You do not need antibacterial soap; the coronavirus is a virus, not a bacterium. Check out our handy hand-washing infographic!
Using hand sanitizer
It works. Use it often. Make sure it is alcohol-based. There are some “natural” products designed to be less drying to your hands. These do not work.
Cleaning hand towels
Wash your towels often, too. Or use paper. Sometimes, we can’t be eco.
Here’s an unproven suggestion from me that transcends this particular outbreak: All business and public spaces should turn their bathrooms’ doors around, so you push on the way out rather than the way into the restroom. If building codes or other safety codes prohibit this, install a foot pull. If none of this is possible, at least put the trash can for paper towels outside the door, so paper towels used to open the door can be disposed of easily.
Disinfecting common surfaces
The crux of all the focus on hand-washing is that you’re unlikely to get the virus from someone coughing or sneezing directly into your face. You are much more likely to catch the virus by touching something that someone else touched after coughing into their hand. This can partly be prevented by disinfecting surfaces.
The most commonly touched surfaces in homes and offices, especially shared spaces, are a priority. Countertops, remote controls, and refrigerator handles should be disinfected regularly. That said, it’s possible to become compulsive about this in ways that have risks. Any given surface is very unlikely to harbor a dangerous virus, so it’s possible to overdo this and waste a lot of time, resources, and concern. But if you’re the sort to typically only clean things that look visibly dirty, do consider the invisible.
Phone screens may be the one surface we touch the most. Related coronaviruses are known to live on glass for up to four days. If you’ve been touching your phone with viral hands, then you do a beautiful job washing those hands, and then you touch your phone again, you may have just re-contaminated yourself. I’m not suggesting the constant cleaning of your phone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends once a day, though I don’t see how—if it’s worth doing at all—that would be often enough. That said, I have never once cleaned my phone.
Masks seem logical as preventive measures because the disease is spread by respiratory droplets, which can travel simply by breathing but mostly distribute in plumes from coughs or sneezes. If you were sick and had to leave home for some reason, ideally, you would wear a surgical mask. But even this precaution is far from perfect—the wearable equivalent of sneezing into your elbow instead of right in someone’s face. You’re still infectious and should behave accordingly. The World Health Organization has published recommendations for when civilians should use masks. But stockpiling also deprives other people who might have needed to follow those guidelines.
This is an imperfect directive, as so many people’s jobs and other obligations make it impossible. But no single recommendation is perfect or universally applicable. And Americans have proved, flu season after flu season, that many workplaces are not accommodating enough of staying home. If workplaces are not accommodating, businesses may suffer even more in the long run, if more shutdown measures are taken.
Seeking medical care
This may be the most crucial question: When do mild symptoms warrant attention? Most people are not accustomed to seeking care or testing when they have a mild cough or runny nose. My hope is that, in the coming days and weeks, local and federal officials share clear guidelines for exactly how and when to seek medical attention early in the disease’s course. China’s containment measures depended on early detection that isolated people at the beginning of their infectious stage. Then again, we can’t have everyone with a cough and sniffles rushing to doctors’ offices.
South Korea is pioneering drive-through screening clinics. The idea seems smart: There are no doorknobs to touch, no crowded waiting rooms with magazines that have been coughed on for months. Maybe most important, there is no paperwork to fill out and no cost. If an outbreak hits a major city, clinics and hospitals will likely be overrun with people who have cold and flu symptoms. Some of those people will need reassurance that they can go home and will be fine; others will need admission to a hospital; others may need an intermediate level of care, monitoring, and quarantine.